From the age of five, Erin
Young ’00 wanted to be a scientist. Torn
between research and practicing medicine, she entered Wesleyan without a
commitment either way. In her junior year, she spent the summer in Malibu,
California, conducting research at Pepperdine University through a fellowship
funded by the National Science Foundation. By the end of the summer, Erin knew
she would pursue a career in scientific research rather than in medicine. At
Wesleyan, Erin majored in biology and minored in physics and neuroscience, then
earned her master’s degree and Ph.D. in experimental (biological) psychology
from Kent State University.
“My research has shifted over time based on where my experiments have led me,” Erin said. “I began studying the way the spinal cord responds after injury. When people have a spinal cord injury they often have other injuries that may affect their recovery. When you activate the immune system, the spinal cord loses some of its ability to support recovery of function, and that recovery is then impaired long term.” During her five and a half years of post-doctoral training at Texas A & M, Erin studied how stress and inflammation affect pain outcomes and a person’s sensitivity to persistent pain. In 2011, she enrolled at The Pittsburgh Center for Pain Research at the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine and began studying the genetic contributions to pain susceptibility. Erin had already spent time studying the relationship between a person’s external experiences, like social stress and exposure to immune activation, and pain. She decided to refocus her study on the combination of genetics and environment.
For the last three years, she has studied both somatic and visceral pain and the gene X environment interactions that determine who develops and who is protected from chronic pain. Using animal and clinical populations, Erin hopes to identify which genes predispose people to persistent pain and how environmental factors might modulate that susceptibility. The idea, she says, is that someone may be carrying genes in her DNA that increase or decrease the likelihood of developing chronic pain that becomes apparent only after an injury or other challenge occurs.
“Pain is the single most commonly reported reason for seeking medical attention. Pain is what alerts us that something is wrong with our bodies. If we can identify a subset of genes that are key players in pain sensitivity and pair them with environmental factors, we could tailor treatments and health interventions to individuals and more effectively treat, or better yet, prevent their pain,” Erin said.
In the fall of 2014, Erin will start on the faculty tenure track at the University of Connecticut’s Schools of Nursing and of Medicine, while continuing her own research.